When the BDS battle lost pro-Israel U.S. Jewry

Staunch Israel supporters are criticizing the country’s anti-boycott policies. Is the law necessary for Israel’s well-being and is it worth the damage?

US student Lara Alqasem (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
US student Lara Alqasem
According to political legend, former US president Lyndon B. Johnson once said, after seeing an anti-Vietnam War segment on CBS News, “If I’ve lost [Walter] Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Fair or not, Israel seems to have lost its Cronkite this week, when The New York Times’ arguably most pro-Israel writers Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, who described themselves as “unhinged Zionists,” wrote a joint column criticizing Jerusalem’s policies to combat boycotts.
To be sure, Weiss and Stephens, a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, are not what Cronkite was to Middle America in the 1960s, but they are prominent and influential voices, whose staunchly and reliably pro-Israel views have tracked with, or been to the right of, the American Jewish establishment. And the government has lost them in the war on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
For the first 10 years of the BDS movement’s existence, the government did not take it seriously. Then, in 2015, Gilad Erdan was given the Strategic Affairs portfolio and commanded a NIS 100 million budget to fight delegitimization efforts against Israel. Erdan has joked that what got the government to finally address BDS was that it targeted the things Israelis love most: soccer, as in FIFA, and cellphones, as in the French company Orange, which has since departed Israel for non-boycott reasons.
At first, Erdan took quiet action, working to support existing organizations that were already fighting BDS. Slowly, over time, he became more open about his efforts – though not all of them, because a law was passed making the Strategic Affairs Ministry exempt from having to comply with the Freedom of Information Law.
The battle against BDS was taken up another notch this year, when a law was passed to ban anti-Israel boycotters from entering the country. The MK who ushered it through the legislation process is Kulanu’s Roy Folkman, but Erdan lent it enthusiastic support, saying in January that “whoever continues letting [boycott activists] into Israel exposes Israeli citizens to harm.”
Since then, there have been a number of incidents in which activists were barred from the country because of their connections to organizations that are on the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s blacklist. In addition, many activists were stopped and questioned for what they felt were unfairly long amounts of time, including journalist Peter Beinart, who calls to boycott settlements, and Simone Zimmerman, a leader of IfNotNow, which calls for US Jewish organizations to take Israel to task for its continued presence in the West Bank. The incidents received breathless coverage by left-leaning Jewish outlets like Ha’aretz and The Forward, turning them into major news stories in the Israeli and Jewish news and, in some cases, to general media.
LAST WEEK, Lara Alqasem was stopped at the airport under the law banning boycotters from entering the country. Alqasem had a valid student visa and had been accepted to study at the Hebrew University.
Alqasem is a University of Florida student and the former president of her campus chapter of National Students for Justice in Palestine, one of the blacklisted groups, which advocates for a boycott and has created a hostile environment for many Jewish students on college campuses in the US. While she was involved in SJP, the chapter organized a demonstration in support of Rasmea Odeh, who bombed a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969, killing two Israelis, and was deported from the US last year for having lied about her record on her citizenship application. Alqasem also interned for Nonviolence International, a “fiscal sponsor” of flotillas seeking to break the naval blockade on Gaza, and a member of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a major promoter of Israel boycotts.
Alqasem’s defenders, such as some of her college professors, say she had a change of heart in the past year, favoring a more even-handed approach and seeking to learn more about Israel and Israelis. This is demonstrated by her seeking to attend the Hebrew University even though she was sharply criticized by her community, they say. She even visited Israel in December, without problems at the border.
However, government sources say that Alqasem showed support for anti-Israel and boycott organizations on social media as recently as May 2018 – but Alqasem has deleted all of her social media accounts, and they were unable to provide proof. Still, these sources say erasing social media accounts is a common tactic of BDS activists trying to enter Israel, and were able to cite specific cases.
In addition, some major anti-Israel organizations have adopted Alqasem as their own, promoting a fund-raising drive to pay her legal fees; these include blacklisted organizations such as Jewish Voices for Peace and Code Pink, as well as IfNotNow. The Holy Land Trust, one of the signatories on the BDS movement’s 2005 founding letter, started an online petition in support of Alqasem.
Still, Erdan offered Alqasem the option of entering Israel if she would repudiate the BDS movement. And Hebrew University rector Barak Medina said she wrote a letter to that effect.
THERE ARE two major arguments against the BDS ban to which Alqasem has been subjected, which many critics have lumped together. The first is that Israel is not within its rights in barring boycotters from the country, and the second is that it is unwise or makes Israel look bad.
Saying that the ban is somehow illegal does not hold water. Leaders of extremist groups have been banned from many countries; American white supremacist Richard Spencer cannot enter 26 European countries, and the UK and Canada have banned French antisemitic comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, among many other examples.
BDS seeks to deny the Jewish people the right to self-determination, as said explicitly by its founder, Omar Barghouti, on multiple occasions. Spencer’s fans said “Jews will never replace us” at the infamous rally in Charlottesville last year; BDS’s slogan may as well be “we will replace the Jews.” The popular chant at anti-Israel events “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” says as much. To act as though BDS is somehow less pernicious than the ideologies of a Spencer or M’bala M’bala is, in effect, creating a hierarchy by which some antisemitism ought to be tolerated.
Of course, legal does not always mean correct, and that is where opinions differ, even among those who often defend Israel full-throatedly.
Stephens said Thursday that he and Weiss consider Alqasem’s case to be “something like the straw that broke the camel’s back” on BDS bans, but that they could have written it sooner. They joined forces because they’re known Israel advocates, and thought working together would make the column more powerful.
“I don’t doubt that countries have the right” to bar people based on their views, Stephens said both in an interview and the article. “For many years, there was a question on visa applications to the US asking if you were a member of a communist party or a fascist organization.”
“We’re questioning the wisdom,” he added, pointing to the UK’s ban on Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders as something else he questions.
The columnist characterized BDS and Students for Justice in Palestine’s views as “abhorrent,” but said the correct way of combating them is using “powerful arguments against them to win over the court of public opinion. Those arguments need to be made effectively and consistently and also in a manner that is in keeping with Israel’s values as a liberal democracy.”
Stephens argued that open societies do better when they’re open to their critics, even if those opinions are “dangerous, foolish and antithetical to our own,” and allowing BDS adherents to visit Israel could be “an opportunity to change their lives.” Instead, he said, Israel is turning Lara Alqasem and other little-known activists into a “cause célèbre.”
Erdan blasted this idea as naive in January: “Boycott activists come here to hurt Israel and try to harm its citizens, not as tourists who are coming to see the view.”
This week, a source close to Erdan said in response to the Times op-ed that “liberalism has a limit, and that limit is someone who wants to bring the end of Israel. We’re not trying to be the thought police; we’re judging people by their actions.”
The source pointed to Alqasem’s access to a prominent attorney within hours of her arrival in Israel and daily news articles in Ha’aretz, claiming they’re an “orchestrated campaign... to portray this as a matter of Israel blocking a nice student,” to which Stephens and Weiss have fallen prey.
DEPUTY MINISTER in the Prime Minister’s Office Michael Oren, however, thought the law does more harm than good, pointing specifically to the Times writers as true friends of Israel who criticized it and calling for a reevaluation.
“Israel is a sovereign state and has the right and the responsibility to prevent the entry of those who follow the wretched idea” of BDS, Oren said. However, he added, “it’s clear that the policy currently being implemented is causing us diplomatic harm, and therefore, those responsible for enforcing it must carefully check if Lara Alqasem does support BDS and if her presence in Israel is meant to promote harmful goals that endanger our security.”
Folkman, who was the BDS ban’s leading sponsor when it became law, made similar comments to the Post. He stands by the law, but called for the authorities to tread carefully when using it. He also said that he does not know enough about the Alqasem case to comment about her specifically.
“We don’t have to let everyone who wants to hurt us into Israel,” Folkman said, “but it [the law] has to be used proportionately. The law was meant to deal only with people who hold significant positions in organizations that mean to harm Israel. The law isn’t made to limit criticism or opinions of private individuals.... The law doesn’t give the government a carte blanche to ban critics from Israel.
“I’m not sure the Interior Ministry and Strategic Affairs Ministry are being as careful as they need to be,” he added.
However, contrary to Oren, when asked if keeping this law on the books is worth the damage to Israel’s image, Folkman answered with an emphatic yes.